helnwein archive

San Francisco Chronicle – October 31, 1998

One-man show at Modernism Gallery, San Francisco, 1998


by Kenneth Baker

Art viewers who consider themselves shockproof should take a look at German painter Gottfried Helnwein's show...

Helnwein is an Austrian artist peripheral to the Viennese "Actionism" group, which took performance art to grisly and degrading extremes. Images of children have long been central to his work, and they are in the current show. He never forgets, or lets anyone else forget, that Vienna was the city that Sigmund Freud and Adolf Hitler called home.

We cannot see Helnwein's giant airbrushed portraits of young girls without thinking of Freud's insistance that children have real sexual lives, at least psychologically.

When Helnwein paints "Epiphany II (Adoration of the Shepherds)" (1998), the reference to Christianity could hardly be more blasphemous. In blue-gray monochrome, he shows a Master Race Nativity, a half clad mother and naked child being admired by a group of Nazi soldiers.

"Untitled (Blue monochrome, child with gun)" (1998) brings to mind the candlelighted religious pictures of Georges de La Tour, only here the light spills from an open refrigerator door into which a little girl wincingly aims an automatic pistol.

Helnwein tries to tear the veil of denial away from our ordinary consciousness of life, to let the relentless horror of our century show through. Whether his work is a counterthrust or a contribution to the evil that he cannot ignore is the question that no viewer can escape.

31.Oct.1998 San Francisco Chronicle Kenneth Baker